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FIVE SUMMER STORIES : Like Heaven

LATE ON A SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON, WITH barely time for a side trip before dark, Elizabeth Troy left the main highway and followed a winding road to a seaside town she used to know. Once there, she found its light and sound, its single wooded hill, its mile of beach now widening at low tide, so improbably familiar that at first she thought she was lost. The rack of sunglasses in the drugstore window, the flag on the grocery, the pines and eucalyptus on the hill across the road, the whole look of the place struck her as magic, a triumph of recollection over reality.

Standing on the cement walk that only ran for a block and a half, breathing air that came quick and blue from the sea, she was glad she was here, a few miles west of the freeway, in a place she hadn’t seen for 15 years.

She parked in front of an empty lot, in case the Alvarado brothers and Mrs. Nye still owned their stores and might notice and recognize her, and waste time talking. She thought she had glimpsed a dark Alvarado head behind the meat counter of the grocery and Mrs. Nye’s glasses gleaming behind the drugstore counter.

Beyond Elizabeth, the pink stucco post office was closing for the night. A border of nasturtiums erupted against its side in hot reds and saffron yellows, the intense shades that figure more often in memory than in fact. Elizabeth turned to face the ocean.

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Here there was a change. The end of the pier had broken off and taken with it fishermen’s benches and a bait hut. A life preserver still hung from a loose guardrail. Elizabeth watched a jogger run north on the beach and two others pass him, running south.

Footsteps approached her and stopped. It was an Alvarado brother, the oldest one, Juan, who had never learned much English.

“Juan,” she said, and shook hands.

Juan said, “Welcome,” and smiled the wide smile she remembered.

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“I’m only passing through,” she said.

“Then you live here now,” said Juan.

“I have to leave before dark.”

“Which is your house?”

“No, I’m just passing through.”

“Welcome,” said Juan, and they shook hands again.

There was less than an hour of daylight left. Elizabeth crossed the street, passed the closed Unitarian church and the closed real estate office and walked down Seaside to Pine. Pine Street climbed the hill in the rough shape of a question mark and shone with a recent coat of tar. Unpaved lanes ran off it.

At the second crossroad, Elizabeth turned right. This had been a street of garage studios and houses split into apartments. Couples halfway between her age and her mother’s used to rent here by the month in summer. During the week, the wives took care of one or two small children, rinsing sand from their hair, pulling up blankets at night. The husbands came for weekends and, on Friday night and Saturday, couples went from house to house, carrying corn chips and glasses out of which martinis splashed to dot the dust of the lane. Sometimes, over the weekend, the composition of the couples changed and new pairs formed, only to regroup by six o’clock Sunday into the original pairs--the father and mother of the child who, bathed combed, and bearded with cookie crumbs, was already learning to survive.

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Sometimes the halves of couples failed to rejoin. This happened in the case of Elizabeth’s cousin Jane, who left her new husband for someone’s house guest so suddenly that her eggplant casserole was still in the oven and her wet bikini still on the line.

Today, towels hung from the balcony of one apartment. A motorcycle stood at the front door of another. Four had signs offering them for winter rent, and a converted garage was for sale.

ELIZABETH, CONTINUING UP PINE, PAUSED ON THE curve to look back at the glittering sea, then turned in the direction of the house where she had spent her summers as a girl. Scuffing through pine needles, she passed a row of new houses, compact and functional, before she came to one she recognized. It had belonged to Capt. Benton-Smith, who was wounded in the first attack on Gallipoli in 1915 and spent 24 hours bleeding on the beach. The captain’s scars were visible when, before taking his swim, he sat on the sand in his Panama hat and the black trunks that came to his knees. His cheerful nature and reasonable attitude toward the rout (“We should have given the buggers a shot at the generals”) turned the white cavities carved out of his neck and shoulders into metaphors of scars, acquired without pain or fear.

The captain spent all his summers here, attended to by Irish Meg, a woman of such a frank green gaze and broad white smile that everyone assumed he loved her and, hale as he was, took her regularly to bed. Now ice plant overran Capt. Benton-Smith’s lawn, and ivy wound its way through the louvered shutters of his house.

Beyond two more new cottages, Elizabeth came to the Scotts’ and the Mannings’ houses. Mrs. Scott and Mrs. Manning had been amateur botanists. They spent their summers hatted and scarved, on top of the hill or on the slopes behind it, carrying sketch pads and crayons and, in a hamper, watercress-and-cucumber sandwiches and a flask of sherry. At the end of the summer, one year in one house, the next in the other, they exhibited their drawings, spidery and faint, of blossoms and nettles and varieties of sage.

THE POTTERS’ HOUSE STOOD on a rise above a canyon that was dense with underbrush and the shade of trees. Elizabeth and Annie Potter had been best summer friends in the years before college. Then one went east and one went north and they began to like other people. Annie became a painter and eventually married one. Now she lived in Napa Valley. Elizabeth thought it was Napa Valley. Either Napa Valley or Monterey.

There had been a time when she and Annie Potter, day after day, had stretched out, wet from the ocean, to lie for hours on adjacent towels on the sand. They had spent a large part of 10 summers this way, flat on their stomachs or their backs, in talk, in silence, and in talk again.

Annie’s Uncle Si, her father’s handsome younger brother, had usually spent August here and was the second hero on the street. Uncle Si went into World War II a year before necessary. At 20, he flew a Spitfire for the British over the Sussex downs and Kent. The next year, he was with the Americans over North Africa. He was shot down twice and came home with medals and oak leaf clusters. Once, when Elizabeth was sitting with Annie on the Potters’ fringed porch swing, Uncle Si happened to say, as if the strip of ocean he could see between two pines had reminded him of it, that he had known one or two American pilots who tried to shoot down their own fighters. He said he was almost picked off by a flyer in his squadron who wanted to claim a hit on a German bomber as his own. “To improve his score,” said Uncle Si, “and get home sooner.” Uncle Si said this and laughed. Uncle Si’s looks set him apart. And when jokes were told, it was Uncle Si who always laughed the longest.

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BEYOND THE POTTERS’ RAMBLING ONE-STORY, IN FRONT of the house where she herself had spent so many summers, Elizabeth came face to face with Mr. Elby. She remembered him, a master of ingenious household repairs, as if they had met yesterday. He was pushing a bicycle that he appeared much too old to ride. His nose was thinner than when she had seen him last, his eyes hollower, and his ears almost transparent.

With his faded stare on her, Elizabeth stopped and said hello.

“Are you Lizzie?” said Mr. Elby, and she saw that a front tooth, missing 15 years ago, had never been replaced.

This meeting would delay her. Now she might not get to the top of the hill and down to the beach before dark. “How are you, Mr. Elby?” she said.

“Good,” he said. He examined her for changes, a few white hairs, perhaps, a thickening waist. Then he said, “You look all right. You’re still wiry.” He held his bicycle, ready to mount. “How’s that man of yours, what’s-his-name?”

“Greg,” said Elizabeth, and paused. She had lived too close to her husband for too long to sum him up on such short notice. Without speaking, she continued to stare at Mr. Elby, who had once shot a skunk from her mother’s bedroom window. (“I can get a better bead on it from here.”)

“Well, Greg, how’s he?” Mr. Elby persisted.

When she still stood silent, Mr. Elby made a guess. “He’s gone,” he said soberly.

“Not really,” she said. “But he’s away. He’s in Mexico.”

“One of them places,” said Mr. Elby. Then, “I never got to know him like I do you. “

“Perhaps you will sometime.” She might as well have said, perhaps a tidal wave will leave fishes gasping on Pine Street. “He has to be at meetings,” Elizabeth told Mr. Elby and could have added, my husband is trying to save the world. She placed Greg in conference, this time in a colonial building that had an interior carved stone balustrade and carved lintels at its windows. Under the windows, starving people lined the curb.

“What kind of meetings are those?”

“Scientific,” she said. “Better ways to grow food.”

“I lost all my tomatoes to the beetle,” said Mr. Elby. “Where’ve you been, anyway? How are the kids?”

Elizabeth answered the questions in order. “Lately in Mexico,” she said. Then, “They’re both in college and fine.” She silently added, I hope. There was no way of telling how they were, out of sight and growing up too fast.

“You living here?” Mr. Elby asked with suspicion. If she had rented one of these houses without telling him, he would resent the lost chance to check the gas outlets and get the rust out of the pipes.

“I wish I could.” Then she spoke to Mr. Elby as she once would have to Annie Potter. “It would be like heaven.”

“Like heaven,” he repeated, and was silent for a moment. “Maybe so, maybe not.” He propped his bicycle against the choked honeysuckle on the fence. A light fragrance rose from the matted flowers. “What did you come for?” he asked.

Elizabeth sensed that she was under interrogation. “Why did you do it?” prosecutors asked criminals, parents asked children. “Why?” Greg asked. “Why do you count the beggars and not the free breakfasts in the schools? Why mourn all the lapses and never celebrate the gains?”

She had tried to answer. “Because people in rags pray in churches decorated with gold leaf, because little boys fight to clean your windshield for five cents, because families gather to sift the garbage heaps,” she told him.

Now here was Mr. Elby asking why she had come back. She told the truth. She said, “I don’t know.” Then added, “Who knows when I can come again? We’re in Mexico to stay.” She superimposed on the hillside where she stood a different landscape, a waste of depleted earth and shriveled grain. Greg had taken her to such places and, a day later, gone on to an experimental patch of fertile ground. Here he would strip an ear of corn and expose the fat, even kernels.

“Look at this,” he would tell her at these times, with a conviction that almost caused this single ear to multiply until it fed every man, woman and child on earth.

He would watch her face. “You don’t believe it will happen,” Greg said. “Why?”

Elizabeth only said, “Remember the summers at the beach? Everyone in town had enough to eat. They were all happy,” and she would think of ocean sunlight on 500 happy faces.

But the last time he tried to convince her of the approaching utopia, she had answered, “Someday you’ll make me believe it,” and, standing between the rows of corn, had flung her arms around his neck.

To Mr. Elby she said, “Greg is inventing a new kind of corn.”

Mr. Elby had nothing to say about the diet of Mexico. He nodded as if, all along, he had expected her to settle there.

Elizabeth gazed at the gray-shingled house, the summer site of her growing up. It needed repairs. Paint, at least. Perhaps a new roof.

“Is it empty?” she asked.

“There’s a lease on it,” he said. “One of them teachers from the new state college down the coast.” A smile struggled to lift the corners of Mr. Elby’s mouth. “And the heater leaking water and the oven leaking gas and the faucets. . .” He was approaching a delirium of satisfaction.

Elizabeth interrupted. “How about the Mannings and the Scotts?”

Mr. Elby collected himself. They faced one another on theroad, the level rays of the declining sun still bright on Elizabeth’s left side, Mr. Elby’s right.

“The Scotts, they’re gone. Haven’t seen the Mannings or the Millers or the what’s-their-names, the ones who had the boy that liked dogs. Seems like he always had a stray tagging after him.”

Mr. Elby was speaking of Billy Ranson, and Elizabeth already knew what had become of Billy. His parents were among the friends she hadn’t lost.

“Do you remember the time you shot the skunk from that window?” She pointed to a second-story corner of the house.

Mr. Elby flushed with anger. “I never shot a skunk,” he said.

Silence fell. Elizabeth picked a leaf of rosemary from a bush gone wild at the edge of the lane. She and Mr. Elby moved out of the way of a passing car. The driver waved to Mr. Elby and turned into the Potters’ drive.

“Another teacher,” said Mr. Elby. “Wait till that old wiring blows a fuse.” His voice grew firm in anticipation.

“I wanted to go up to the cabin,” Elizabeth told him, and corrected herself. “Up to where the cabin used to be.”

“I guess you heard about the fire.” Mr. Elby shook his head. “Some of these kids ought to be run in.”

Elizabeth rolled the rosemary leaf between her fingers and smelled it. Immediately, all her relinquished summers were restored, the ones before Greg, the ones with Greg, with one child, with two children. The cabin, built quickly and cheaply, had been a firetrap all along, she supposed. It was simple good luck that the place burned with no one in it. Even so, as she thought now of the sand between the children’s sheets, of the hermit crabs surviving overnight in jars, of the shells in a bucket and the sage in a glass, of the intimacy and isolation of the raw wood structure, Elizabeth suffered a pang. And all four of them had been so young. For a second, looking backward, she believed she remembered exactly how it had felt.

Mr. Elby was thinking about the fire. “These kids,” he said. “Do yours take drugs?”

“I’m not sure,” Elizabeth said truthfully. The sea glittered silver-blue between the pines. “I have to go now. I have to get down to the beach.”

Mr. Elby nodded, as if wanting to be on the beach was always reasonable, in any season, at any hour. “It’s low tide about now,” he said.

At the moment of parting, she remembered to ask, “How’s Mrs. Elby?”

“She’s gone.” Mr. Elby pulled his bicycle out of the honeysuckle. “It’s been seven years. Seven or eight.” His eyes began to water. “She’s in that new cemetery.” He gestured to an unseen location behind the hill. “Seems like I can’t keep flowers growing on her grave. The ground squirrels get them.”

His voice was shaking. Without saying goodby, he mounted his bicycle, wavered, righted himself and, sitting taller than Elizabeth would have thought possible, pedaled out of sight.

HALF AN HOUR WAS LEFT BEFORE sunset. To save time she took a shortcut down the hill, through the canyon that was littered with eucalyptus pods and bark. At the intersection of Seaside and Pine, the business block on the west cast shadows halfway across the main street. Elizabeth tried to skirt the drugstore without being seen, but Mrs. Nye, on the lookout, tapped on the plate glass with her pen. Elizabeth turned back.

An apothecary jar, filled with amethyst liquid, stood as it always had in a curtained alcove to the left of the door. The changeless display of dark glasses and sand toys crowded the window to her right.

Inside the store, Mrs. Nye examined her through both the upper and lower lenses of her bifocals. “You’re looking pretty good, Lizzie. You’re young yet.”

Mrs. Nye had trapped her new permanent in a beaded hair net. “Are you back to stay?” she asked.

“How could I? Someone’s burned the cabin down.”

“No one burned it down,” said Mrs. Nye. “There was a brush fire up there.”

“I guess Mr. Elby forgot.”

“You’ve been talking to Bert.” Mrs. Nye, as though the month were June, carried a beach umbrella to the window. “Bert Elby hasn’t been the same since his wife died. Sometimes he can’t tell the difference between now and year before last.” She passed Elizabeth a carton of chocolate bars and unwrapped one for herself. “They had to take his gun away after he mistook a kid’s loose hamster for a rat.”

Elizabeth supposed Mr. Elby was 80. It was harder to tell about Mrs. Nye. She was one of those women, double-chinned and sane, who, once past 50, never change.

“What did Bert tell you?” she asked Elizabeth.

“About everyone dying or moving away, the Scotts and Mannings and Ransoms. I forgot to ask about the Potters. He spoke about college professors who live in the houses.”

“The Lord God sent those professors to keep us going,” said Mrs. Nye. “They don’t pack up and get out on Labor Day.”

Elizabeth deciphered the time from a wall clock painted over with a clipper under sail. “It’s late,” she said, and edged away. “I have to see the beach again, while there’s still light.”

Mrs. Nye stopped her. “Wait a minute,” she said. “I want to tell you what’s what.”

Leaning over the counter between twin pyramids of sun oil and shampoo, she brought Elizabeth up to date.

“Mrs. Scott’s here now with her grandson. Mrs. Manning came down in August with her nurse. The captain’s been gone a long time. Mr. Si Potter’s dead. His car hit a tree on a straight piece of road in broad daylight. He always did drive too fast.” Elizabeth had a second to think, he must have meant to die. Mrs. Nye passed the chocolate bars. “Annie Potter, that friend of yours, comes once in a while with her two kids. When the marriage split up, they split up four kids. He got two and she got two. She rents the loft over the Millers’ garage.”

Elizabeth, fleeing further news, had reached the door. She said goodby. “Thank you for the candy,” she said, as she so often had in childhood. Her foot was on the sidewalk. The shadows of the stores had stretched across the road.

Mrs. Nye had more to say. “You probably heard about the Ransom boy. Hit when he was riding his motorcycle on the freeway.” She paused to remember Billy. “Whenever he came in here, he left some dog or other barking outside the door for him.”

Elizabeth stepped onto the sidewalk. Sunlight was fading from the roofs on the hill.

Mrs. Nye called after her. “I forgot to ask about your kids.”

“They’re fine,” said Elizabeth. But the children were thousands of miles away. She had no proof.

“And that Greg you married?” Mrs. Nye looked sharply at Elizabeth. “Are you two still married?”

Elizabeth nodded. “We live in Mexico,” she said, offering the remark as an explanation of anything and everything Mrs. Nye might want to know. She saw Greg at tomorrow’s conference, in a room with tall windows, a French chandelier, a tilting parquet floor. Behind him pressed the starving millions.

“What does he do?” called Mrs. Nye.

“Hungry people,” Elizabeth called back. She waved and walked into a gust of salt air.

Before arriving at the wooden stairs that led down the bluff to the sand, she had time to wonder if anything she had just heard was true. Mrs. Nye had made at least one mistake. Billy Ransom didn’t die on the reaches of pavement of Interstate 10. Seven months after his high school graduation, he was killed in an ambush in Vietnam. The brief obituary named his parents as survivors. There would be no services, the paper said. Gifts to the Humane Society were suggested.

At the top of the steps, Elizabeth clung to the rusty iron rail. The Humane Society! she silently exclaimed.

THE SUN, ROUND AND HUGE AND ORange was only inches above the horizon. Elizabeth left her shoes on the lowest step and walked barefoot toward the water across a gleaming landscape of wet sand, passing two by two the exposed piles of what was left of the pier. She stood at the ocean’s edge while shallow waves rippled in and left circles of foam around her feet. Twisting, she looked back at the hill. Once it had been easy to see the cabin from here. She imagined she saw the chimney now, a blackened square against the sky.

Life on the hill had not been flawless. Elizabeth vaguely recalled the occasional tears of children and slammings of adult doors. But the immense peace of the place drowned out these events, leaving only a shimmering calm behind. Under its protection, days spent at the beach were all alike and ran together without distinction. So that, even while being lived, they had seemed eternal.

From where she stood now, Elizabeth had watched another sunset 15 years ago. Then she had a child at each side, with the shadows of giants lengthening behind them. Not far away, Greg talked to a lifeguard who was scanning the surf with binoculars. A boat had capsized that morning and two fishermen were missing. When seaweed drifted against Elizabeth’s foot, she started. She had expected a torn sock or the sole of a shoe.

Aside from that, it had been an evening much like this one, of singular perfection. Like now, the final second of the day hung on a sliver of sun. Sandpipers had tracked the margin of the sea. The lifeguard’s binoculars tracked the breakers.

Now Elizabeth felt a sudden thudding on the sand. A few feet behind her, a solitary jogger ran north. Fifty yards further up the beach, a boy carrying swim fins walked out of the waves and headed for the steps. She supposed he was Mrs. Scott’s grandson, aged about 16, lean of build and badly sunburned, his wet hair plastered to his face. Elizabeth saw him smile as he came near. Then his happiness spilled over, and he spoke.

“How about this?” he said. “How about it?” Turning, he lifted his hand to the evening star, the shore, the water, her.


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